The Cruel and the Callow
many kinds of cultural wars raging across Australia at this late 1990s moment.
I want to talk about just one of them – in the arena of intellectual life and
cultural commentary. I want to jump into some of the debates that have arisen
with publishing events like Mark Davis’ book Gangland, and like-minded books in its wake, and also some of the
rejoinders to that work in books such as Robert Manne’s The Way We Live Now.
there is at least one very good reason why some people are drawn to talking
about culture wars, beyond the fact that it sounds hyper-lively and
sensational. I think that virtually every culture war is about inclusion or
exclusion in a particular cultural scene or social sector. The different zones
of our culture – and I think this is true of the literary world and the
academic world, which are only two examples – are ruled by a largely unspoken
code of privilege. This code of privilege governs who is going to be recognised
and let in the door, who is going to be allowed to have a place and a voice.
I have very little trouble getting access to public space, a forum for my views
and thoughts. But I recognise and sympathise completely with the cultural
situation that Mark Davis finally exposed in Gangland – and I say finally, because it really was not news: most
people of my age (late 30s) had been mumbling the truth of that book to each
other angrily for at least fifteen years.
spell out that truth in tabloid terms: there is a loose class of people – the
usual suspects, as Davis calls them – who hog the most visible, public spaces
for cultural, political, economic commentary in the Australian media, in
newspapers and magazines, on radio and TV. They hog that space simply because,
invariably, they get asked to fill it by commissioning editors. And there seems
to be sometimes an old-fogey sameness to their opinions – a resistance to many
new things, new ideas, new styles of culture.
A friend of
mine once mused about this long-standing situation of privilege in Australian
culture by referring to a 1940 essay by George Orwell, “Inside the Whale”. His
analysis came down to this: those who are inside the whale, inside a cozy
scene, blessed by privilege, see nothing – almost nothing – outside their own
little world. That is because, as far as they are concerned, they are the world: they stand for everyone,
and can speak on their behalf.
other hand, people who are outside the whale, locked out of this privilege,
become fixated upon the space from which they are excluded. They rail against
it, throw stink bombs at it, and monitor it obsessively – often burning up
their own energies in the process.
So that is
a culture war. Actually, over a year after Gangland’s
initial release, it has become more of a sideshow, or maybe a soap opera. On
the one side, the ‘excluded youth’ (grunge writers, pop culture theorists,
cyber-heads, and so on) – these hordes of the suppressed, armed with their
magnificent resentment, slag off the oldies, and scramble for some public
space. And, on the other side, the ‘establishment fogeys’ – the newspaper
columnists, radio and TV talk show hosts, cartoonists and satirists, plus the
various less visible editorial gatekeepers of the media – try out their best
smarmy jokes, shore up their defensive strategies, and continue to pretend that
nothing of interest can really exist outside the walls of their elite club.
doubtless a too-simple war of good versus bad. In the wash-up, something a
little less spectacular than generational change or cultural revolution has
actually taken place. I suspect that both sides in this war have become rather
snap-frozen. And personally, I can get mighty irritated with the habits of
thought and speech, the posturing, the tics and tropes that occur on both sides
of this particular culture war. Being the age I am (going on 39), I feel I am
perfectly entitled to be disenchanted with both the older professionals and the
younger radicals – entitled to be annoyed by both the cruel and the callow.
instance, there is a certain kind of intellectual narcissism which inflicts
both sides in this war. When it comes to some of our entrenched columnists and
commentators, this is an expansive kind of narcissism. You get the feeling that
they seek out nothing new anymore: everything they need to know will be
filtered out for them by their friends, contacts and associates in their
circle. If they ever surf the Internet, for instance, it is so that they can
write a somewhat pained, superior bit of reportage on how they have dipped into
that crazy world of wildly free speech out there – and they have decided that,
really, it is not worth visiting again.
the cozy circle of self-reference and friendly back-slapping in our newspapers
becomes too much to bear: the art critic has chatted to the language expert who
has coffee with the ex-literary editor, and they are all telling us afterwards
what urbane, witty and cruel things they have said to each other – mainly about
the crude phenomena out there in pop culture (like gangsta rap, say) that they
have sagely agreed it is best to avoid.
narcissism rules in the youth brigade, too. Actually, even to publicly label
oneself young, or ally oneself rhetorically with the army of youth when one is
no longer exactly 21 years old, is already an odd and pretty unstable form of
narcissism. Of course, this particular culture war is more about attitude,
sensibility, ideology, than strict, biological age – as Davis’ book clearly
argued. But in this opposing camp that flies the banner of youth, one can
nonetheless hear some very strange things.
of the culture war likes to use the scary form of the ultimatum. They say that
everything is now dead and obsolete – the novel is dead, humanism is dead,
old-left-wing politics is dead, the public sphere is dead, even the act or art
of criticism itself is dead. Only those who are issuing these ultimata,
obviously, are alive and happening, riding that wave of the eternal present –
and that, let me assure you, is another hard act to maintain for too many years
in a row.
agitators for the youth-driven side of the culture war keep telling us that we
are entering a New World – a world ushered in by the Internet, by digital
technology, by prosthetic surgery, by high-speed pop culture, you name it. And
they tell us this without stopping to ponder how the first manifestations of
this New World are going to mesh with all the structures of our still-standing
Old World – a meshing which is never a less-than-messy business. They never
tell us how this New World is going to actually, materially make it into each
of our loungerooms.
There is an
element of intellectual fashion or fashionability here – which is probably
obligatory whenever somebody tries to push something new and youthful. But
worse, there is an intellectual terrorism at work. This brave new world talk
always assumes we are all moving together in sync at the same moment, thinking
the same thoughts, having the same ground-breaking experiences – and if you are
not having those particular thoughts and experiences, not speaking that lingo,
then you are made to feel stupid, unhip or a dinosaur.
of culture war rhetoric refuses to see the fact that different people,
different groups of people, are always located in different places, at
staggered stages of development, working with diverse sets of customs and
values, experiences and information. Any effective kind of cultural gesture has
to see and work with that kind of diverse audience reality if it hopes to be
part of the generalised democratic public discussion which McKenzie Wark calls
our virtual republic.
Now let us
get back inside the minds of our ageing elite. They love to sing the sad song
of decline: the decline of life, of society, of culture. Everything was better
back in the good old days. In particular, if I hear the phrase ‘the dumbing
down of culture’ one more time, I will scream – if only because high-minded
commentators seem to have lamented the unending trivialisation and decay of
mass culture on just about every day of this century. In fact, culture is
always dumb – and it is always smart – depending on what you are after and from
what angle you are looking at it.
the youth factor, or what Anton Bruckner called the ‘pains of youth’, creep in
even here. This is because the nostalgic lament of the melancholic culture
critic always harks back to when they were 21 years old – when there was
Sinatra or Fellini or J.D. Salinger, instead of Madonna and Tarantino and Bret
Easton Ellis. None of us are immune to the charms of this argument: myself, I am
getting ready to write a major essay proclaiming that mass culture has been
going irrevocably downhill since the great days of disco music in the early
thing that annoys me on both sides of the cultural war is the never-ending
smash-and-grab for-and-against so-called political correctness. Where this
circus has got to lately, in the entrenched brigade, is a proud public embrace
of political incorrectness. You know how this one goes: a comedian like Barry
Humphries, or a poet laureate like Les Murray, gets up on the public stage and
says: we live in terribly rigid, censorious, prudish, joyless times! The social
revolutions of the 1960s and ‘70s have brought down a politically correct,
punitive prison of values and norms and rules! So, just watch out if you are a
cheeky individualist, or if you simply speak your mind – and watch out
especially if you are a traditional, old-style, Australian male! And so then the oldies, having torched their straw man, have
a whale of a time being politically incorrect in public. When the results are
not merely silly, they are just an excuse to be loud and reactionary. You can
get a decent blast of this political incorrectness if you check out the very
strange Australian film Welcome to Woop Woop – which comes complete with a legitimating cameo from B. Humphries.
the other, trendier side of the fence, I have to say that there is indeed something resembling political
correctness. It arises from a beleaguered fortress or siege mentality
experienced by people who feel they do not have social power, who do not have
access to automatic media attention, or widespread public approval – as yet.
Again, this is that ‘outside the whale’ syndrome: on our little island, our set
of new, confronting values are so precious, so fragile, so endangered, that we
have to ram them through into the public eye with as little scrutiny or
criticism as possible.
terms, I am talking here about the hysterical defensiveness that clings to some
fierce advocates of multiculturalism, of queer theory, and a few other
neighbouring social movements. Take a look at the Australian film Head On, for instance. Because this is a
film about a changing, multicultural society, because it is about queer
sexuality, because it is made by a woman, simply because it is Australian – and
because it comes from an acclaimed youth-grunge novel – this film is
untouchable, uncriticisable in some quarters. Many reviewers, feeling press-ganged
by this mentality, do not even pause to judge it as a film, or question it as a cultural object on any level: they
simply promote it, offering it up as a simple mirror reflection of our
dynamically changing world. When Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton give
virtually every new Australian movie (Head
On included) off-the-chart high star ratings – that, to me, is indeed an
example of political correctness.
two general trends in cultural commentary that bug me. The first concerns our
massive popular obsession at the moment with science as the be-all and end-all
of every Grand Question. I have absolutely nothing against scientific
investigation; nor against those consumers who race to bookstores to buy books
by popular scientists. But I have noticed that some of our more conservative
cultural commentators have become very fond of saying to their enemies: look,
ordinary people at large do not care about postmodernism, or queer sexuality,
or the new digital age, or whatever fresh, intellectual commodity you stylish
young things are peddling; all that the ninety-nine-point-nine-percent of real
people really care about are the really
big questions, the only important ones.
are these questions? How about: Where did we come from? Is the universe ruled
by chance or design? What is there in outer space? Does time have a solid
bottom or a fuzzy bottom? Now, I may be missing something in this pop science
obsession, but I just cannot believe that these amazing questions will prompt
answers to all that ails us today. And it is not just the bouncing new baby of
postmodern ideas (and whatnot) that gets thrown out with this outer-space
bathwater – it is virtually all political ideas and social analysis, any
ideological or materialist study of the conditions that make up our world. This
bizarre, cosmic turn in public thought is basically just a way, finally, to
avoid talking about niggly social problems that just will not go away.
issue I want to raise is the problem of the public intellectual in Australia as
the instant know-all – the expert on public life who is called upon for their
specialist, insightful comment. There is no real reason why this system of
expert opinion should not work, why it should not contribute something modestly
good to our public conversation. Here and now, however, the system has
absolutely stopped working. Maybe this is because the modesty element went out
of it long ago.
with the Australian public intellectual in the mass media – young or old,
new-fangled or old-fangled, radical or reactionary – is that he or she is
forced to have an opinion on everything,
every aspect and level of life and society, culture and science. The notion
that diverse specialists, various interested parties all over the place,
different individuals with various experiences and reflections, should be
brought in and allowed to speak in public in a way that does not squash, mangle
or streamline the diversity of those views – this is the notion that our mass media editorial gatekeepers, for
whatever curious reasons, still cannot come at. And that is why – when our
representative public intellectuals feel compelled to stand for a constituency
or a generation or a way of life – our culture wars sometimes become just
This is the transcript of a talk
given on the “Culture Wars” panel at the 1998 Melbourne Writers Festival.
© Adrian Martin August 1998